Helena examines new road route Time, money questions left unanswered

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Several hundred people got a close-up look at the proposed route for Alabama Highway 261, but they still are not sure when and if the project will ever occur.

Last Tuesday night, representatives from the Alabama Department of Transportation (DOT) gathered with Helena leaders and citizens in the City Hall to discuss the project.

Some residents took advantage of the opportunity to see whether their homes and businesses would be affected by the proposed re-routing, but others seemed disappointed that they did not find out the project’s status.

Alabama DOT Third Division Engineer J.F. Horsley was absent from the meeting.

During the meeting, DOT representatives who were in attendance talked with residents and officials. The meeting did not feature any formal presentation or question-and-answer session.

The DOT publicized the meeting, advertised as a public hearing, following lobbying efforts by Helena Mayor Charles &uot;Sonny&uot; Penhale and several members of the Helena Economic Development Board.

Penhale and other Helena leaders drove to Montgomery during the current legislative session to encourage DOT leaders to include the widening of Alabama 261 in the department’s five-year budget.

The busy road, which Helena businesses say has cost the city money due to congestion, has been scheduled for widening since 1994. In October 2003, the DOT told Helena officials that the project was delayed for two years due to a lack of funds.

The map last Tuesday featured a 3.96-mile stretch of Alabama 261, located between Vulcan Quarry Bridge and U.S. Highway 31.

Horsley said this week that the DOT never removed the Alabama 261 project from the agenda.

He said the state has been performing environmental studies on the proposed re-routing of the highway.

&uot;The project has been ongoing,&uot; he said.

Also, the state is awaiting approval of the new route by the Federal Highway Administration.

Horsley insists the project is moving forward despite financial uncertainty.

&uot;Yes, it’s proceeding,&uot; he said.

Horsley said the proposed route was presented so that the DOT could gather input.

&uot;If there’s problems, people need to tell us,&uot; he said. &uot;We’ll get with our consultants.&uot;

Although the DOT is waiting 10 days after the meeting to gather public input on the proposed route, Horsley said most input so far has been about the schedule for the project.

Horsley said the construction schedule remains undetermined due to budget uncertainties.

&uot;The federal government has not approved money. We’re operating on a month-by-month budget,&uot; he said of the DOT.

Horsley said he hopes the state will know within the next couple of months when construction can begin for the Alabama 261 project